The English, and here I may be speaking also of myself, are an eccentric race. This is a nation of trainspotters, of people who find Monty Python hysterically funny (which it is–don’t get me started on the Ministry of Silly Walks or the defunct parrot), of people who write in to the London Times at the end of winter with such startling revelations as, “I’ve just seen a robin. Is this a record?”
Eccentrics are tolerated well here; in fact, England, overall, is a very accepting society, at least to those who look as if they’ve been here forever. There’s a real live-and-let-live ethos in the UK which, if not always resulting in fully embracing the eccentrics among us, at least doesn’t marginalize them as they might be elsewhere.
Back in my town near Boston, we had a mailman, Al, who was a true, English-style eccentric. He would travel around our streets groaning under the strain of a heavy bag of mail despite the fact that he could have used a mail cart, his uniform always dirty, his face a pallid white, looking as if he hadn’t eaten a healthy meal in his life. He of course was single.
But here’s the thing: he was the best mailman I’ve ever had. He never misplaced an envelope, and when he left on his annual three-week vacation, he would leave worried, handwritten notes to everyone on his route telling us he’d be gone, that we should expect the mail to get mixed up, and that we should call a number, which he provided, to complain.
We would soldier on through those dreaded three weeks, hand-delivering misdirected mail to our neighbors, counting down to the day that Al would return.
And then one day he didn’t. He’d had a heart attack at his rented apartment down the street and had died, aged only 54. When his colleagues went over to his apartment, they found piles and piles and piles of undelivered mail going back years, almost all of it 4th class circulars.
Some people on Al’s route saw him as a criminal who kept their precious mail or were angry at him. I saw him for what he was: a man who was obsessed with the mail, a true eccentric. The fact that he died with several clean, unused uniforms in his closet and two million dollars in his bank account only cemented my belief.
There are many people here in England–many more than in the US–who quietly live out their days as eccentrics, possibly more in the small villages and perhaps the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where eccentricity is not only common, but prized. All you need to do is watch the BBC quiz program entitled “Mastermind” in which people are quizzed on their knowledge of their hobbies (the satirical works of Hogarth, anyone?) to know that eccentricity is a national trait.
Isabel Taylor, in the magazine Albion, has some clever and insightful things to say about English eccentrics: http://www.zyworld.com/albionmagazineonline/features6.htm
As the American writer Bill Bryson, who has lived in the UK most of his adult life, says in Notes from a Small Island about his seven-week travels around England:
“Most of the patients on Tuke Ward [a mental asylum at which Bryson briefly worked] were like that when you got to know them–superficially lucid, but underneath, crazy as an overheated dog. It is an interesting experience to become acquainted with a country through the eyes of the insane, and, if I may say so, a particularly useful grounding for life in Britain. . . . (page 84)”
Back in America, I often heard the phrase about people who were a little odd, “he’s a little Asperger-y,” or “she must be somewhat autistic.” But what I hear in England is quite different: a deep-down tolerance for eccentricity when they say, “You’re looking for James? He’s out doing his trainspotting. He’ll be back soon.”